Top two seeds in East Region meet in heavyweight battle for spot in Final Four
Two legendary coaches in Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski will meet each other with a Final Four berth on the line Sunday.
The Michigan State Spartans (31-6) and the Duke Blue Devils (32-5) will face off in Washington, D.C. on Sunday to determine the winner of the East Region and which team moves on to the Final Four in Minneapolis. On Friday night, No. 2 seed Michigan State handled No. 3 LSU 80-63. Hours later, No. 1 overall seed Duke escaped with a 75-73 win over ACC rival and No. 4 Virginia Tech.
Izzo and Krzyzewski have a combined 19 Final Four appearances between them but only one will be able to add to their career total this year.
East Region: No. 2 Michigan State Spartans (31-6) No. 1 Duke Blue Devils (32-5)
Time: 5:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Capital One Arena (Washington D.C.)
Keys for Michigan State
In their win over LSU on Friday, Michigan State shot 47 percent from the field while holding the Tigers to 39.3 percent and 28.6 percent (6-for-21) from 3-point range. The Spartans will need a similar, if not stronger, defensive effort against a Duke team that has everything coming together at the right time.
In their win against the Hokies, the Blue Devils shot 55.4 percent from the floor. They went 6-for-20 from beyond the arc, but that's not been a strength of this Duke team.
Michigan State knows that Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are probably going to get their points and rebounds because both are talented and tough to defend, so the Spartans will focus on limiting the damage the rest of the supporting cast does. Williamson and Barrett combine to average 45.3 points per game. That's more than half of Duke's season output of 83.5 points per contest. The only other Blue Devil averaging double figures in scoring is fellow freshman Cam Reddish (13.6 ppg), who missed Friday night's game with a knee injury. His status for Sunday is uncertain.
Speaking of supporting cast, the Spartans' Aaron Henry had a big game against LSU, as the forward poured in 20 points (on 9-of-14 shooting) to go along with eight rebounds, six assists, a block, and a steal. It was his just third game of the season with double-digit points. If he can provide a similar performance that would greatly increase Michigan State's chances of winning.
Keys for Duke
Duke is a perfect 29-0 when it holds opponents to 76 points or fewer this season. On the other hand, the Blue Devils are 3-5 when opponents score more than 76. It sounds simple, but Duke will need to limit the easy opportunities Michigan State has inside the paint.
The Spartans are averaging 78.5 ppg on 48.6 percent shooting from the field. Michigan State is not prolific from long distance (8.3 made 3-pointers per game), but the Spartans are among the most accurate from that distance. Michigan State shoots 38.2 percent from beyond the arc, which puts them in the top 25 nationally. That's also a big reason why the Spartans are top 15 when it comes to overall field goal percentage.
Michigan State also is one of the nation's top rebounding teams with a margin of plus-9.4. Duke is not as good on the glass (+5.6) so the Blue Devils will need to increase their defensive pressure and try to force some turnovers. Which may be easier said than done as the Spartans do a good job of sharing the ball. Over the last three games, Michigan State has assisted on 47 of 82 made field goals (57.3 percent).
Sunday's Michigan State-Duke game will be a matchup of the experience of the Spartan upperclassmen (Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins, and Matt McQuaid) vs. the Blue Devils' freshmen (Williamson, Barrett, Tre Jones, and Reddish, if he plays). Although experience is always a big determiner in games like this, it is difficult to go against the talent Duke can throw at you. Reddish's availability is a concern, but Jones came up big with 22 points, including five made 3-pointers, in the win over Virginia Tech.
The Blue Devils' four freshmen have accounted for 77 percent of their points this season. Even if one of them is having a bad game (or doesn't play), they have enough talent to overcome it.
This should be a good game that could potentially come down to the wire, which is fitting for a regional final to determine which team goes on the Final Four.
Prediction: Duke 77, Michigan State 74
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.